LITTLE WOMEN – ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I’VE SEEN IN YEARS

SHORT TAKE:

Artfully modernized, faithfully told beautiful adaptation for the contemporary audience of the classic story, Little Women.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Anyone. All ages. Please go, bring friends.

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LONG TAKE:

We know this story extremely well, inside and out. I’ve read the book. I’ve taught it as part of our curriculum several times over the span of homeschooling six kids.  I have seen a number of filmed versions including the appalling one where Katherine Hepburn was way too old to play Jo and a lovely one with Susan Sarandon as Marme. Our family was IN the danged play at our local community theater 12 years ago. My second oldest daughter played the lead, Jo, and the rest of our family either had parts on stage, behind the scenes or were present for every rehearsal cheering their siblings on. We’ve incorporated lines and expressions like "love lornity" and how French is a "silly slippery language" from the play into our traditional family sayings. Shoot, with four girls of our own, there were times I've felt as though we were LIVING scenes from Little Women…but I had never truly appreciated the story of Little Women until I saw this 2018 modernized film.

Little Women, marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of the source book, has been refurbished to modern day and is arguably one of the best movies I have seen in years. The film makers have adapted this Civil War era story to the 21st century with the same skill as the innovative Cumberbatch-Freeman Sherlock updated the original Conan Doyle invention, or Steve Martin refreshed Cyrano de Bergerac into the whimsical Roxanne – that is to say with both seamless, creative invention and great respectful affection for the source material. It is a testament to the timelessness of the concepts foundational to Louisa May Alcott’s novel that it translates so well, but it is the talent of the gifted screenwriter Kristi Shimek, newbie director Clare Niederpruem and the actors that makes it blossom onto the screen.

For the benefit of anyone suffering the misfortune of not being familiar with the story, the premise of Little Women follows Jo March from childhood to womanhood as she and her sisters grow and mature together in the warm embrace of loving parents and stalwart friends through joys, embarrassments, mistakes, misunderstandings, and the other comedies and tragedies of life.

For those who are blessed with a familiarity of the subject, rest assured the writer and director have a love and respect for the material. The tale has not been changed by the displacement in time, but is transformed into an image more familiar and therefore more accessible to 21st century audiences, without altering a single iota of character development, story arc, or theme. John Bunyan’s famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, is as notable here as it was in the original script and novel, forming the underlying themes of passage from human frailty and sin to redemption, suffering the travails of life with forgiveness, courage, and love. Instead of the Civil War, the father is deployed overseas. Instead of letters they have Skype. The charity the original characters perform for a starving mother and children next door is done at a homeless shelter. The children are homeschooled and the social faux pas are appropriately updated to reflect the unwiseness of modern youth. As many lines as can be are pulled directly from the book, but updates, where needed, are appropriately made.

I’ve known Lea Thompson was a fine actress ever since I first saw Back to the Future at the theater in 1985. I was floored to discover, some 20 minutes into the movie when Marty goes back to the past, that the same woman who played a dowdy, overweight, burnt out, disillusioned and embittered alcoholic was NOT in fact 50 years old but a brilliant little 24 year old actress who nailed the tragic first version of Lorraine in the opening scenes of that now famous movie. She hits the bull's eye again in Little Women as Marme, the gentle, warm and archetype maternal figure of the March family.

I was honestly not familiar with any of the other cast members before seeing this Little Women. Most harken from TV shows and B movies, but every one of the performers is not only tremendous in their roles, but fit into and shape their characters so perfectly I will have difficulty ever thinking of these March family members and friends as anyone but them (with the except of our own family members, of course).

Sarah Davenport is perfect as the high strung, impulsive, often unthinking and deeply emotional Jo. Allie Jennings ditto as Jo’s favorite sister and alter ego, the gentle, kind and resolute Beth. Melanie Stone is lovely as Meg, wanting nothing more than to be a wife and mother. Elise Jones and Taylor Murphy playing the younger and older Amy, respectively, do a great job of the self absorbed and easily smitten youngest sister without losing Amy’s vulnerability. Lucas Grabeel steps into the part of Laurie with just the right combination of awkward and delightful as the lonely young man next door anxious to join a family. Ian Bohen as the caring and insightful Professor Freddie Bhaer, Bart Johnson as the warm and loving Papa March, Michael Flynn as Laurie’s kind and thoughtful grandfather Mr. Lawrence, Stuart Edge as Brooke, Barta Heiner as Aunt March and even Goober the cat contribute their support to this brilliant and beautiful film adaptation for the contemporary audience.

The dress and sets are simple and fit the time and place of a family of well cared for and spiritually sound young women. The sweetly fitting soundtrack is decorated with modern day songs which accurately reflect the needs of the film's moods. Most of the action takes place in and around the March and Lawrence homes. The filming style is of flash – backs and forwards – as time moves on and memories are rekindled by events in Jo’s dynamic present. And I really enjoyed the cinematically creative and tasteful way Ms. Niederpruem conveyed the passage of time.

Go see this wonderful version of Little Women. Read the book either before or after…or both…and gain a fresh new appreciation for this enchanting, inspiring and enduring tale of spiritual growth, family strength and the power that love and faith have over the buffets and trials of life. Bring Kleenex.

DARKEST MINDS – DERIVATIVE TEEN ROMANCE DRESSED UP AS WEAK DEPRESSING SCI FI

SHORT TAKE:

Paint-by-numbers teen-romance/sci-fi full of plot holes and borrowed ideas.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid to older teens only, for language, X-Men style violence and a couple of aggressive advances by pervy bad guys.

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LONG TAKE:

Combine Divergent with the new/retro X-Men then flavor with a teaspoon of Children of Men and you have Darkest Minds.

Based on a series of books by Alexandra Reagan, the premise is that a virus infects all children. Most die but the survivors are left with superpowers. The government is afraid of them so, on the pretext of looking for a cure, rounds them up into prison-like camps, where they are overseen by abusive soldiers, given menial tasks to do and occasionally euthanized. One of the internees, Ruby, (Amandla Stenberg from Hunger Games) gifted with mind control, escapes with the help of a sympathetic doctor, Cate (Mandy Moore) and seeks sanctuary with other runaways.

There are so many weak, illogical and unappealing features to this movie that I will only hit upon the highlights.

The two favorite whipping boys of the lazy liberal screenwriters are corporate CEOs and the military. Our military are the scapegoats in this one. All are seen as cruel and abusive to the last remaining children on the planet. Not only is this stupid, but would be an enormous waste of incredible powers displayed by the children. For example, heightened intelligence children are sent to polish shoes. Why? Why are they not put to work creating super gizmos?

Set ups are never paid off. In one scene, our protagonist is cornered by a pervy-acting soldier and another girl deliberately makes him angry to distract him. She is taken away, presumably for punishment, but we never see her again.

Ruby sends a bounty hunter off into the woods to walk herself to death. Then the kids walk off into the same woods without ever mentioning her again. Also, this is almost exactly the punishment Wolverine's dying girlfriend, Kayla, metes out to Stryker at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Along with enhanced intelligence, powers of other children in the camp include telekinesis and the ability to control electricity.

Children who demonstrate more powerful abilities such as mind control or fire breathing are euthanized.

If a corrupt military had access to this kind of firepower, the idea that these children would be either killed or corralled and simply housed is ludicrous. Why would they not at least weaponize them?

There is no reveal as to what was going on in the rest of the world. If it was only in the United States, we would have a significant advantage with a race of super children. Was the virus a pandemic? Where did the virus come from? Was it manufactured ? of alien origin? Was it supposed to be a natural part of humans' development? The writers seem more interested in making the military look inherently evil and jumping right to the teen drama than writing a solid coherent story.

The performances of the children are adequate but fairly banal and what you might expect in a teen romance film dressed up as a Sci-Fi.

It's a shame because they had the skeleton ideas for a really good movie. One thread they could have followed was when the runaways come upon an abandoned farm and one of the older kids mentions simply but insightfully: no children, no economy.

This is common sense the global warming cultists and the abortion mentality fanatics fail to grasp. Putting aside the Holocaust level atrocity of the philosophy that there are too many of us and that children, thereby, are at best an inconvenience and at worst a plague to be minimized or eliminated, it is a basic fundamental of economics that a population does not grow also does not thrive.  This is a concept that the far superior Children of Mendid not just glance at but understood and embraced.

The devastated and abandoned areas in Darkest Minds the children come across are one of the few accurate portrayals of the outcome of the loss of our next generation. To do a crossover moment, this is the landscape that Thanos and those others who believe in overpopulation, would create. Darkest Minds could have been a kind of Children of Men spinoff but this point was never followed up.

Another really good idea which was little utilized was Watership Down, a brilliant story by Richard Adams seen from the point of view of a group of adventuring rabbits. The idea of a group of intrepid outcasts, wandering from one dysfunctional society to another in the wake of a massive catastrophe, rejecting them all, seeking sanctuary and finding it in family would have been a real upgrade to this plot. Instead, Ruby, the main protagonist, finds this book to read to the youngest child in their group. The blessing that God gives to rabbits is quoted: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you.But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning." Ruby applies it to her love interest, Liam (Harris Dickinsen), but this is unearned. "The Prince with A Thousand Enemies" is a clever trickster leader who brings his family through a series of dangerous adventures. Liam, while a nice young man, is merely one of a group of kids trying to survive. He's not an especially strong leader, nor shown to be particularly adept at thinking outside the box. If they wanted to make this Watership Down analogy work they should have set it up properly, instead of just throwing it in hoping it would stick by virtue of having been mentioned. This tactic does not work.

Ruby kills somewhat randomly, though not without reason.  She forces soldiers to shoot into an opposing group, gets a helicopter pilot to do a suicide dive, and makes the pervy soldier shoot himself in the head. I only bring this up because elsewhere in the movie the group she is with objects to the idea of joining an anti-government group call the Children's League. They are afraid the League would train them to be soldiers and kill people. Seems a bit inconsistent without at least some espoused rationalization. The screenwriters need to pick a side and stick to it. Is it okay to use these powers lethally or not?

Essentially, this is a so-so forgettable teen romance with about as much originality as Eragon, set against a background of sci-fi which plays out like a first treatment idea instead of a fully fleshed-out screenplay.

Finally, I must wonder why screenwriters almost always see the future as dystopian. Granted a conflict is useful in the creation of an interesting story, but there's no reason a functioning healthy society couldn't be challenged, instead of starting from the assumption that life sucks. Star Trek, Dr. Who and the Avengers – three of the most profitable and long lasting frachises in all of cinematic history – all celebrate more often than not, the advances, achievements, creativity and essential goodness of humanity – and that sentient life is the most valuable thing in the material Universe. You'd think the writers of such depressing movies as Hunger Games, Divergent, Ready Player One, The Road, Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451, Clockwork Orange, and Brazil would start from a more optimistic threshold. After all, what is the point of fighting for a world which will not get any better? Not that these are all bad  movies – on the contrary many on the list are classics. It's just you'd think the truly creative might come up with a more positive outlook on life and our future. As Trek and Who, in particular, have shown, it is possible to have conflict and even make intelligent social commentary and still have a more optimistic view of life. Just sayin'.

WARNING: A little bit of language, some X-Men style violence of gunshots, fire breathing, explosions and people being thrown around, along with the pervy antagonist scenes, makes this suitable really for older teens and up only. If you were comfortable with your kids seeing X-Men, this would likely be fine.